x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pope's visit marred as cardinal likens Britain to 'a Third World country'

Leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland demands an apology from Vatican aide

LONDON // The arrival of Pope Benedict XVI's plane in Edinburgh yesterday was tinged with symbolic irony when the weather proved too windy to roll out the red carpet. The welcome awaiting the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide had already been blown off course by child abuse scandals by priests in many countries, including the UK and Ireland.

Matters already had gone downhill less than 24 hours before the start of the Pope's four-day tour of Britain when a senior Vatican aide, Cardinal Walter Kasper, was quoted in a German magazine as comparing the UK to "a Third World country". The German-born cardinal was promptly pulled from the papal entourage, the Vatican blaming ill health, as Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, demanded an apology from Cardinal Kasper.

In the interview conducted several weeks ago but published on Wednesday in the magazine Focus, the 77-year-old cardinal, who was in charge until July of the Vatican's drive to foster links with Jews and Christian denominations, described Britain as being in the grip of an "aggressive new atheism" where "Christians were at a disadvantage". Remarking on the multicultural nature of British society, Cardinal Kasper said: "Sometimes, when you land at Heathrow, you think you have entered a Third World country."

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales said that no slight had been intended, adding: "His comments do not represent the views of the Vatican, nor those of bishops in this country. They are the personal views of one individual." Cardinal O'Brien told BBC Radio Scotland yesterday that the comments were "unfortunate - each and every person's aides sometimes do make awkward, difficult remarks".

He added: "And simply, if we do that sort of thing we apologise for it, and I'm sure Cardinal Kasper will apologise for any intemperate remarks, which he made some time ago." Pope Benedict did not address the cardinal's comments as he spoke to reporters aboard the Alitalia Airbus 320 flying him to Britain, but he did make his most comprehensive admission to date over failings in the way the sex abuse scandal had been handled.

He said that the Catholic Church had not dealt with abusive priests decisively or quickly enough and that the priority now must be to help victims and regain trust in the Church. The Pope said that he felt "sadness that the Church authority was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently quick and decisive to take the necessary measures" to stop the abuse. Groups have planned to protest about child abuse and Church policies such as contraception and abortion during the Pope's four-day stay in Britain - a nation that has been predominantly Protestant since King Henry VIII broke with Rome five centuries ago.

Addressing the planned demonstrations, the Pope acknowledged that Britain had a "great history of anti-Catholicism". But he added: "It is also a country with a great history of tolerance." Arriving in Edinburgh, he was greeted by cheering crowds and a heavy police presence as he drove from the airport to Holyrood House, Queen Elizabeth II's official residence in Scotland, where he was officially greeted by the monarch, the head of the Church of England.

The Queen described the visit as an opportunity to "deepen the relationship" between Catholicism and the Churches of England and Scotland, and praised the Catholic Church's "special contribution" to helping the most vulnerable around the world. In response, the Pope said he wanted to "extend the hand of friendship" to the entire UK, not just its Catholic population. He also warned that "atheist extremism" could undermine society.

Last night, the Pope held an open-air Mass in Glasgow. The Catholic Church had hoped to attract 100,000 people to the event, but later reduced the capacity to 65,000 after a slow take-up of tickets. His predecessor, John Paul II, attracted 300,000 to the Mass he held in Glasgow during his pastoral visit to Britain in 1982. @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae